Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Spilling A Trail Of Kosher Salt, As She Went

[Above: The Poowes taking in a snowy day at the Dyers' Cottage. If you don't think they're cute, you're a heartless SOB, who deserves a big lump of coal in your stocking.]

This Brangler isn't happy.

On the evening of December 18, 2009, just before a foreboding mauve-colored sky began burying the D.C. Metropolitan Area under nearly two and a half feet of snow, I was headed towards Capitol Hill along the Eisenhower Freeway, where I saw many HUGE salt trucks lined up on an overpass. These trucks were of the industrial-sized GMC variety you might see servicing a construction site, and a fellow Penn Brangler later told me they had also seen these trucks lined up along the Ike. My own mother, who'd traveled that same freeway, early Friday evening, told me she had seen the same, large salt trucks, there.

It would all make sense the next day, as the snow piled to over a foot and kept falling, when a neighbor would tell me that the D.C. government had a sand surplus--more than enough to handle a blizzard this size. More sand than all those big trucks could carry, surely.

The 3500th block of Pope Street, in the heart of hilly Penn Branch, didn't see a salt truck until December 21st, Monday evening--that's nearly two days after the storm faded on Saturday night. The truck appointed to service this tree-lined stretch of Pope Street was barely bigger than a Ford F-150--so small, your two fattest cousins would tip the thing over, if they jumped in it too fast.

From the porch of old Dyers' Cottage, where I grew up, we watched this little truck sprinkle what looked to be fairy dust up and down Pope Street--took two trips, I think. It left behind a trail of sand or salt that was every bit as unimposing as the truck that had delivered it. It looked as if a tired, old lady'd come up the street with a leaky grocery bag,..spilling a trail of Kosher salt, as she went.

For a Ward Seven neighborhood that voted overwhelmingly for the current administration, it was disappointing. It was insulting...

Sit tight, my friends.

I've got more coming, and in typical Penn Brangler fashion, there's light at the end of the tunnel and all is tied up in a warm, positive, affirming bow. It gets better, ..and it kinda has to with the holiday upon us and all that--can't really leave you all bummed out for the holidays, can I?

The Penn Brangler is back.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

An Evening With the Bard


In case you haven't heard already, Councilwoman Yvette Alexander (a Penn Branch native) will be hosting Ward Seven Night at the Shakespeare Theatre, TONIGHT--on Wednesday, September 9, 2009, at Sidney Harman Hall, located in the Gallery Place area of Downtown Washington.

According to Ms. Alexander's website, "400 complimentary tickets" will be available to residents of Penn Branch and other Ward Seven neighborhoods (Hillcrest, Fairfax Village, Goodhope, Capitol Heights, Deanwood, Greenway, etc.) for this big-box production of William Shakespeare's Taming Of The Shrew. The magic begins at 7:30pm, ..but, the Shakespeare Theatre Company website warns to get down there early, as their lines usually start forming four hours before a show starts. With director David Muse's inspired all-male production of Romeo & Juliet still the talk of D.C.'s theatre circles, this production promises to be a quirky, unconventional, eye-bending spectacle, typical of his critically acclaimed interpretations of the Bard's works ..and not to be missed.

The speed-humps on Carpenter Street (around the corner from where my mother and sister live) are high enough to ski on, and there is more opossum and racoon on this hill than you can shake a hunting rifle at, ..but, Councilwoman Alexander continues to be a Penn Branch gift that keeps on giving. Events, like Night at the Shakespeare are so vital to the wellness of River East Washingtonians, and especially to our kids, many of whom often express a feeling of being a scarred, exiled and forgotten part of our otherwise opulent Nation's Capital. I think Yvette Alexander knows that these events connect all of us to a larger world of art, culture and opportunities that simply haven't landed in our part of town, ..yet. In spite of the considerable challenges facing much of her community, Alexander continues to bring insightful and forward-thinking solutions to us, and we are all the wealthier for calling her one of ours.

She is a light, my friends.

She is a light with free tickets to a play at Sidney Harman Hall, ..after which a night of shameless, frivolous partaying in Chinatown and points farther west must be had by all.

Go, you must. *Go! Vanish into air! Away!

Mel Dyer

*That last bit, "Go! Vanish into air! Away!" was inspired by (or stylishly lifted from) William Shakespeare's infamous Othello. Hey--I'm an English Lit major, here! Look the other way and let me have my fun.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Old Alliances

On a quick errand, some years ago, I remember driving through a very different Benning Terrace, at 46th Place and G Street SE, than the one that exists today.

Having grown up (like many Penn Branch folk) with firearms at home and knowing what they can do, I ignored my neighbor's urging to drop him off and speed away as fast as I could drive. Something seemed wrong and shameful about doing that--wasn't raised to think that way and didn't particularly care to regard Benning Terrace or any other troubled River East neighborhood as a leper colony or some mythical leviathan.

I knew that speeding through neighborhoods like Benning Terrace or building freeways over them, as was done in Southeast Capitol Hill (now 'Hill East'), doesn't make them magically go away or solve their problems. I knew that running off doesn't make them any better for people who have to pass through them to get somewhere else--certainly doesn't make them better for the folks, who have to live there.

So, this one didn't run.

Instead, I took a really good, hard look at the place. I saw the drug activity, loitering, noise, litter and stench thereof. Drank it all in deeply, and I could see very well that some of the horror stories I had heard about Benning Terrace were based in fact.

I could see very well how lucky I was to have grown up where I did, in Penn Branch, and was overwhelmed with pride for the men and women, who work so tirelessly and vigilantly to keep our opossum-littered hill [Got two opossum watching me through a window, as I type this!] such a great place to come home to. As Benning Terrace disappeared behind an umbrella of maple trees in my rearview, I thought about all the neighbors, who watched out for me, as I grew up, ..and how lucky I have been to know their discipline, love and protection.

I felt very proud and, at once, very humble also.

Today, there are people, who feel that way about the Alliance of Concerned Men and how, just a few years ago, this grass-roots nonprofit organization rallied the people of Benning Terrace, once nicknamed 'Simple City', to solve their own problems and invest, spiritually and economically, in a better future.

I have just added a link to the Alliance of Concerned Men, who mentor at-risk youth residing in high-crime areas of the D.C. Metropolitan area, to our Great Folks, Great Stuff section. I am very proud to do so.

Support these guys any way you can, my friends.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

O Street Creek?

A few days ago, my former social studies teacher--great lady, who still lives on southern-most end of Carpenter Street--tells me there's a CREEK [Another creek?!], running behind the houses on O Street and along the back wall of the Penn Branch Shopping Center. When I heard that, I could've had a baby right on her porch!

My mind flooded with questions...

How big or deep is it? Where does it go? What kind of animals, besides our lovable and prolific Brangler opossum, are living down there? Can the people, who live along O Street actually see the creek from their backyards? Does anybody have any cool stories about this creek?

Recently, I've noticed there was a rather thick patch of woods, behind the PBC; truthfully, I couldn't guess how thick it might actually be. It is a pretty wild patch and hard to see into, but, I would love to get a look this creek! From what Mrs. G told me, I would wager it is not as big as Pope Creek, which runs along the backs of the houses on Pope Street. Perhaps, when re-development begins on PBC, and that back wall gets torn down, we might get a peek.

There was a great creek behind the private school that I attended, as a child. We played in it, swam in it (sometimes), fished tadpoles, frogs and crayfish out of it, and I have never forgotten my affinity for creeks and streams.

Mel Dyer

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Tennis, Anyone? Anymore?

Since its founding in 2001, the Recreation Wish List Committee, chaired by Dr. Cora Masters-Barry, wife of former Mayor Marion Barry, had been operating a tennis academy for the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, nestled beside a broad, golden creek at 701 Mississippi Avenue in Southeast Washington. On Thursday, August 13, 2009, the government of the District of Columbia sent an eviction notice to the Committee, which, according to Attorney General Peter Nickles, was served because the Committee’s corporate registration had been revoked in 2006, prohibiting its continued operation.

So, this Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, which has served the lower income and at-risk youth of River East for nearly ten years, closes. What does it have to do with life in Penn Branch? Why should we care?

What’s the big deal?

As a member of the *Kiwanis Club of Capitol Hill and volunteering with the *Southeast White House’s Homework Club (an after-school program), I learned there are courageous, iron-willed, young people, right here in River East (Southeast), for whom that is very much a big deal. For these kids, who walk out of their apartments to wade through open-air drug markets, impending gang violence, prostitution and trash on their streets—the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center and institutions like it can radically change their perception of the world around them ..and of their place in it.

At its best, the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center introduces them to an ordered and functional world beyond the chaos of their streets. It is a world, the air of which is charged with the intensity of hard competition, but, also one shaped by time-honored rules, discipline and the expression of mutual respect between competitors. It is a world driven by a collective ambition to be the best at what you do and even to exceed one’s own expectations for individual progress. Furthermore, the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center shows these young people that the world beyond their street is one they can compete in ..and win in.

It’s a better world. It’s light in the darkness. It’s hope.

That is the big deal about the closing of the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, ..but, what does it have to do with life here, in Penn Branch?

Whenever and wherever it’s in our power to do so, we ought to support such institutions, especially ones serving youth, right here in River East, because this is where D.C.'s future conscientious neighbors and community leaders are being made. It is from institutions like this, where young people are encouraged to think and dream beyond their immediate circumstances, however challenging, that society will welcome its next problem-solvers. If we're lucky, maybe, they will want a stake in this great neighborhood or another like it—to live and raise their kids here, champion its old-fashioned ideals ..and to fight like hell to keep it just as wholesome and nurturing a place as it is, now.

Maybe, they will even appreciate our scrappy, waterlogged, mosquito-ridden, opossum-infested montanita, as much as we Branglers do!

All controversy and political intrigue aside, in an August 13th interview with WJLA TV, Dr. Cora Masters-Barry insists that the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center’s corporate and tax exempt status is above board. Last Thursday, the Washington City Paper reported that Mayor Adrian Fenty’s office said the revocation of the Center’s corporate registration was discovered in a random check of nonprofits that have been operating in D.C. for years ..and, of the closing, assures all concerned that something can be "worked out".

Mel Dyer

*The Kiwanis Club of Capitol Hill and the Southeast White House, located at 2909 Pennsylvania Avenue in Southeast Washington, D.C., are GREAT organizations that tirelessly and selflessly serve the economically and culturally diverse communities of River East. They welcome your time, your ingenuity and your financial contributions, however great or small. To get involved, check out the 'Great Folks, Great Stuff' links on the right of this page.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Hope Councilwoman Alexander Gets Her Bread

October 1, 2009, an informed neighbor told me was announced at the Penn Branch Citizens Association meeting at August 11, 2009, is the day [3] Penn Branch Center gets the wrecking ball. [If you haven't read my piece about PBC, please do so. Scroll down, and you will find it at the bottom of this page.]

The neighboring laundromat will go, and CVS will take the lot it presently occupies. Wachovia Bank will occupy a new structure that will be one of two set right on the sidewalk. The other will be *DUNKIN' DONUTS, ..I hope. It was also said at one of the Spring 2009 PBC meetings, that the developer, ICG Properties, had once intended to put a five-story, mixed use (condo/retail/office) building on Pennsylvania Avenue, which would have blocked the view of our montanita from that street. A few talks with my Brangler neighbors got it knocked down to TWO stories! Wow!

It was decided, earlier this year, that phasing in these new *developments was the way to go. Read more about that here.

At a PBCA meeting, a few months back, Councilwoman Yvette Alexander expressed interest in seeing a PANERA BREAD, there. Honestly, I did not know there was such a retailer, at the time, and I still know nothing about this shop, but, do like this hardworking lady (a Penn Branch native) enough to hope she gets her bread. Good luck with that, councilwoman!

Formidable folks in my neighborhood--tough, scrappy folks. Don't mess with Penn Branch.

That's as close to substance and hard reporting as I'm going to get, this week--you can almost smell real journalism here, if you use your imagination. Last weekend, I got some great pics of National Harbor (now, officially 'National Harbor, MD'), and I'm working on a fluff piece about it. Not really sure how to approach it, but am working on it.

Mel Dyer

*For the record, I haven't heard anything about a Dunkin' Donuts coming to PB. Again,..I have not confirmed information on Dunkin' Donuts or any other similar retailer coming to the new PB Center.

*I neglected to mention that GATED underground parking is slated to be part of this development, making it more difficult for jerks to clutter up PBC's lot with free commuter parking and scoot off downtown. Presently, the parking situation at PBC is a mess.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

No...the OTHER Fairfax!


[Second Edition, 4/14/15]

Now, a confession...

While I grew up in Penn Branch and spend alot of time with my family here, I've had a condo in Fairfax Village for about three years, now.

Nearby Fairfax Village, while not without its challenges, looks pretty much the same as it did, when I was a little boy. With rolling, emerald lawns...stately colonial design, recalling the Georgian mansions of old Virginia...solid, REAL brick walls that hold heat in Winter and get popsicle-cold with summer air-conditioning--Fairfax Village is a River East treasure, the grandeur of which can be attributed to the dedication of its engineers, the wholesome values of its long-standing residents, and the enduring vision, vigilance and high standards of its manager, Mr. James Welch. Fairfax Village is bordered by a neighborhood that has been plagued with crime and other trouble for decades, and it is, for the most, safe, fairly quiet and aesthetically beautiful--a management miracle.


I am really proud of the folks in Fairfax Village, who have kept it from looking like a Middle Eastern war zone. I am also happy to find out that one of its newer residents is writing a blog, Life In The Village! With its sizeable, retired senior population keeping up with their grandkids and people going to and from work, all hours of the day and night, who would've imagined anyone in the Village had time to blog? Amazing--and a great representation of the thinking and very literate River East we rarely see on the local, six o'clock TV newscasts!

Like our furry possum friends, always popping up, where they're least expected, ..may River East continue to surprise all of us.

Mel Dyer

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Roving Merchants, Crackheads and Drunks…and Hope?

(Originally published, August 15th, 2009)
If you’ve noticed a sea change at the Good Hope Marketplace Safeway, where our Sears & Roebuck used to be, you aren’t the only one.

For nearly a year and a half, I’ve proudly referred neighbors to this supermarket and bragged how much better managed it was, than the Capitol Hill store. The service has been impecable and attentive. The heavily policed parking lot has given our families a feeling of security, however relative. The clean, orderly atmosphere — lively and busy, but, DRAMA-free — has always been welcoming. Sure, it’s occasionally cluttered with long lines that stretched back into the aisles and belligerent customers flipping out in the check-out lane, but, the positives outweighed the negatives.

Just two days ago, on Friday evening and during rush hour, I saw two fat women standing right at the door of the Safeway, selling perfume out of a crate. While sitting in the parking lot, waiting for my mother and sister to finish their errand, I was accosted by four pedestrian merchants roaming the parking lot, peddling everything from bootleg movies to designer watches. Had I experienced this at the Benning-Minnesota or Capitol Hill Safeway, I would have laughed it off as local flavor, but, at the typically heavily-policed Hillcrest-Good Hope store, this just doesn’t happen.

Then, it suddenly occurred to me how uncharacteristically clean and pedestrian-free the other side of Alabama Avenue — the stretch of sidewalk between the Discount Mart and the liquor store — had looked, as I drove into the Safeway parking lot. Considering how colorfully urban and busy it typically looked, this stuck out like a sore thumb. Somehow, the legions of walking merchants (the guys you see milling around, selling things out of their coats), drunks, crack-heads and panhandlers had drifted across Alabama Avenue and were now freely roaming the parking lot of the Good Hope shopping center!

River East should be big enough for these cultures to comfortably co-exist. At its best, the colorful, bustling, funky AND friendly chaos of present-day Benni’Sota has a kind of reassuring familiarity to many River Easters of long-standing, and has earned its place in the rich tapestry of D.C.’s cultural experiences. The rambling, wholesome, country suburban charm (sometimes more town, than country) of Hillcrest-Good Hope is the mixed realization of the ambitions of working middle and upper middle-class River Easters, with (according to Councilwoman Yvette Alexander’s office) the lowest crime rate in all of Washington ..and neighbors, who still wave at each other and bake each other pies.

I’m tired of hearing River Easters lament, “I guess we just can’t have anything nice over here!” It’s in the air, east of the Anacostia. You feel it pulling you down, as you cross the John Philip Sousa Bridge, and I’m tired of ingesting it — of half-believing it, even.

We know very well how this is going to end, if the situation at Good Hope worsens.

Muggings, public urination (and the subsequent STENCH, thereof), open-air drug trade, gang violence and prostitution will be commonplace. At some point, good people will just stop patronizing this shopping center and head somewhere we think higher standards are more culturally acceptable. Considering that we have seen what the Good Hope Marketplace can be, when it is properly managed, this retreat would be a terrible waste and economically devastating to the area. Methinketh a Hair Grease & Baby Clothes Depot replacing our nice Safeway couldn’t be far behind.

River East can have it all. Let’s celebrate the variety of our cultural mosaic. Let’s respect it ..and leave it alone.

Mel Dyer

[Honestly, I didn’t set out to write another rambling, tribalist blog entry on River East retail woes. Guess it’s a sore spot with me, ..but, it seems so shallow, considering everything else that’s going on in the world and, right here, in this part of town. Substance is good. I can do substance. Stay tuned.]

At Ease, With Our Own

Brangler Oppossum (above) is the only thing gathering in these hills, my friends.

(Originally published, July 23th, 2009)
If it seems some Penn Branch folk are always bellyaching about the lack of quailty retail in our neighborhood, don’t judge us too harshly. It’s more than just bellyaching. Prior to the Reagan Era 80s and the Inflation that preceded it, this neighborhood had plenty!

I remember drugstore diners with GREAT coffee, movies at the Hyland Theatre (at the Hyland Cinema, once located next to the Pope Funeral Home) and, with valet, at Coral Hill. There were even several restaurants, a cocktail lounge or two, a bowling alley, ..and all right here, in and around Penn Branch.

I remember seeing my neighbors at these places and the feeling of relaxed belonging and protection it gave me. I remember hearing my father laugh about bumping into Mr. Such N. Such at that cocktail lounge, and how, after the encounter, he’d decided that Such N. Such probably wasn’t such a bad guy, after all. I remember, in passing, seeing the broad smiles on the faces of our hardworking Penn Branch guys and ladies, sitting around the diners and bars, proud that these were our places.

At ease, with our own. The tribalism I talked about, last week.

Today, if there’s a place (besides, the Southeast White House) where Branglers routinely gather, east of Capitol Hill’s Eastern Market and south of the Denny’s on Benning Road, for coffee, margaritas or anything else, it beats the hell outta’ me. Now, people go to Capitol Hill and Northwest for that kind of thing.

The last three and a half decades, post Civil Rights Movement, post-desegregation, post-riot, post-urbanism, post-inflation, has been rough on Penn Branch. We want commercial development and always have, ..but, not the kind that attracts people, who don’t respect or appreciate the wholesome, small-towny, slightly Cosbyesque thing we’ve got going here–the Brangler Way. If gang violence, over-crowding, loitering and the pungent fragrance of urine wafting up Carpenter Street is the price of having a cineplex and steakhouse burgers and a proper bar in the neighborhood, no thanks!

We also like people! We like music, color and laughter in the air!

We like carefree retirees, newlyweds, families and big, goofy dogs! We like to work hard and play harder, and we would love to see Penn Branch Center reflect and indulge all of that, ..but, without making our neighborhood feel like a war zone in a Third World Country.

Not at the cost of losing everything we’ve worked so hard to build and grow here.

Not at the cost of losing our community’s unique identity. Our Penn Branch culture.

Mel Dyer

Friday, August 7, 2009

More Beltway Beauty Than We Can Handle!

Penn Branch Center, charming as ever! (Clockwise from top right) Penn Branch Liquors, CVS Pharmacy, Beltway Beauty and Star Pizzeria, below it.

(Originally published, July 15th, 2009)
She sits at the corner of Pennsylvania and Branch Avenues, this brick and concrete goddess. Our Penn Branch. She sits there, with a mouthful of meatball subs, twinkies and Cool Ranch Doritos and washes it all down with a Colt 45. She sits there, fixing the one good eye she’s got left on you, as your car makes a mad rush for the John Philip Sousa Bridge.

For Capitol Hill. National Harbor. Adams Morgan. Cool places. Exotic places.

Faraway places, where cafes litter the sidewalk. Where laughter, foreign accents and live jazz tease the imported air. Where people linger. Celebrate. Hook up.

I cannot honestly say that I remember the last time I wanted to visit Penn Branch Center, the prehistoric strip mall at the corner of Pennsylvania and Branch Avenues, for anything, ..and I don’t know anyone else, who does, either.

The retail section is pretty small, but not uncommonly so for a Southeast D.C. strip mall. Nearly as large as its anchor store, the CVS Pharmacy, is a beauty supply store smack in the middle of the mall. Just to the right of it, is the Star Pizzeria, which, in spite of its longevity at PBC, speedy service and GREAT double cheeseburgers, hasn’t really been a pizzeria, since the late 1970s. To the left and a few doors down, was Sabin’s Records, a discount records, tapes, CDs and lottery ticket retailer - now ‘CLOSED’. At the Center’s west end, off the corner of Pennsylvania and Branch Avenue, are a Subway sandwich shop and a Wachovia Bank.

Once, the back of Penn Branch Center featured a sensibly sized Safeway, in a time before supermarkets (to compete with malls) blew up to the size of baseball stadiums. Now, there really isn’t anything back there you’d ditch a happy hour to get to. The D.C. Metropolitan Police Violent Crimes Unit, a satellite office for the D.C. Municipal Center and a VERY GOOD cleaners are all very useful to have close by…

But, can they make you a margarita?

Grill you a round of porterhouse steaks for the guys on the blankety-blank team?

Pour you a cup of hearty Columbian coffee?

And why is that important?

Pubs, diners and cafes give people a sense of community - a collective ease with one another. It’s a chance to figure out what we’ve all got in common ..and to gossip about the folks we can’t quite figure out! In my opinion, it’s a breeding ground for a healthy sense of tribalism - that collective self-awareness, out of which a culture grows, is defined, strengthened and proudly celebrated by the group. Without these places, great neighborhoods can become bedroom communities - culturally dead, socially disconnected and unprepared to address challenges to the collective well-being of the people, who live in them.

Am I saying Penn Branch is culturally dead or disconnected? Of course not, ..but, we’re lucky.

I can honestly say that, in spite of its shortcomings, which are LEGION, Penn Branch Center has been a good neighbor, ..and with the upcoming and long overdue renovations, it can only get better. It’s got a hot sandwich ready, when you’re too tired to cook dinner. It’s got your prescriptions waiting, after a much dreaded doctor visit. On occasion, it’s even got champagne on hand, ..on a shelf, of course. That’s a good neighbor, my friend.

You want cocktails, Brangler? Bring your own.

Mel Dyer